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In his book titled ‘What is Life?', British-born scientist JBS Haldane wrote:

‘The creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other’.

 

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An example of the beetle collections at the Museum.


Haldane was referring to the numerous nature of the coleopteran, or beetles as they are more commonly known. This order consists of more species than any other group. In fact, beetles make up around 40% of the total insects described. The Museum itself boasts an amazing collection of over 10 million species, meticulously stored in 22 thousand draws. This collection is constantly evolving and expanding.

 

Zambia

 

Nature Live took the opportunity to learn more about the entomologists' latest adventure – a trip to Zambia. Entomologist Lydia Smith spoke to the Nature Live team about their findings.


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The  landscape in Zambia.

 

Lydia spent 6 weeks travelling around Zambia collecting samples. Zambia has very varied terrain which provides plenty of scope for a diverse community of beetles and other organisms. The Museum's team worked closely with local guides to navigate the hostile environments. Lydia explained that their help was invaluable, she described them as ‘extremely helpful and excitable people’.

 

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Lydia with members of the Museum team and local guides.

 

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The team vehicle surrounded by dense vegetation.


Being in Zambia, the team was constantly surrounded an incredible array of wildlife, some of which interfered with their sampling. Hyenas and civet cats were both suspected of disturbing the insect traps.

 

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An elephant caught on film by a camera trap.

 

Camera traps caught glimpses of a variety of species, from elephants to elephant shrews. One day Lydia recalls picking up a beetle and receiving quite a shock – the beetle's backend exploded in her hand!  She had encountered a beetle she had only previously read about, the elusive ‘Bombardier beetle’. As a defence mechanism, this particular type of ground beetle ejects a chemical spray from the tip of their abdomen,  accompanied by a loud popping sound.


Field techniques

 

During the expedition, a number of techniques were used in order to obtain samples. Light traps were used at dusk to attract insects onto a large sheet or tent like structure where they could then be collected. This type of trap can be extremely effective at gaining samples of nocturnal species.

 

The team often used pitfall traps, which consist of a plastic cup that is submerged in the soil and partially filled with a preservative. An attractant is then suspended above the traps to draw insects towards the area. Dung or carrion is typically used. The dung is collected from local ungulates – or, in more remote areas, the dung is supplied by the researchers themselves!

 

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Dung and carrion are used to lure insects into these pitfall traps.

 

Mid-flight traps consist of a piece of Perspex suspended in the air and below the Perspex, a number of colourful trays that contain a small amount of water.

Perspex trap.jpgMid-flight traps in action

 

Another method involves beating branches and collecting the falling samples on a modified umbrella to capture tree-dwelling species. A pooter is then used to collect the samples from the umbrella.


Lydia explained the critical nature of the permits that allowed the team to bring samples back into the country. Samples, usually suspended in alcohol for preservation, are drained ready for transportation. They are then flown back. Upon hearing this, a younger member of the Nature Live audience curiously enquired…


‘Do the beetles sit next to you on the flight?’


Sadly invertebrates are not permitted in the cabin and are relegated to the hold. Once back at the Museum, the samples are refreshed with a new batch of alcohol and then the sorting process begins.


Back at the Museum


After a six week trip the team will spend up to six months processing all of their findings. While Lydia’s team is only particularly interested in beetles, they process the entire selection and divide the other insects into orders. These insects are then sent to their respective experts for further classification.

 

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A tiger beetle from the subfamily Cicindelinae, collected by Lydia Smith and the rest of the team.

 

From this particular expedition, the team have identified a number of new species, including wasps and rove beetles. The total number of new species is difficult to define as a rigorous procedure is followed, involving a number of different specialists before a final decision is made. Often insects are named after the region in which they are found, which helps to highlight the importance of the region and increase the likeliness that this area will be protected in the future.


Beetlemania was yet another superb insight into work at the Museum and in the field. If you are interested in beetles and would like to chat to an expert, there will be a number of the collections displayed at the Museum's upcoming event Science Uncovered on the 26 September.

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Fascinating giants that roamed four continents from circa 700,000 to 4,000 years ago: woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) have been the subject of countless conversations here at the Museum in recent months. So Nature Live thought they would go with the flow by tackling the question of just 'Why did the mammoths go extinct?' Prof Adrian Lister, an expert in vertebrate palaeobiology, led this Nature Live and presented the two main arguments.

 

Climate problems?

 

The first argument Adrian presented was the climate change theory: that mammoths used to rely on grasses as their primary food source, and were exclusively vegetarians. These grasses produced a meadow-like landscape, which was a hugely rich and high quality food source for the mammoths.

At the end of the last ice age, around 14,000 years ago, a warming climate caused forest habitat to spread north and gradallly replace grasslands that the mammoths relied on for food.

 

During the last ice age, these grass meadows expanded across the northern hemisphere, expanding the mammoths' geographic range. These grass meadows were above the tree line, as the grasses could successfully survive in lower temperatures than trees. Here fascinating video footage lit up the Attenborough Studio's big screens, showing the growth and change of distribution of these meadow grasslands across the last ice age.

 

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Woolly mammoths roamed the earth between ca. 700,000 to 4,000 years ago, before they were driven to extinction.

 

Adrian then described the range of specialist adaptations that woolly mammoths used to survive in this extreme habitat. The most obvious of these was the thick hair which insulated them from the harshly cold weather conditions. It turns out that mammoths actually had two types of hair: a very fine hair close to the skin trapping and warming the air for insulation, and a coarser hair on the outside to help shield them from cold wind and rain. In addition to these adaptations, woolly mammoths also had a thick layer of fat underneath their skin to further insulate them.

 

To the audience's amazement at this point a true sample of woolly mammoth hair was put underneath the visualiser in the Studio. The hair was thousands of years old yet fully intact, but this was only the start. Adrian then stepped forward to pick up a whole mammoth lower jaw, illustrating how it would swing back and forth when chewing.

 

Holding this in his hands in front of the live audience visually demonstrated just how large the teeth of a mammoth were, and the large size of the surface area required for chewing tough plant material like grass. Adrian made it clear that studying mammoth teeth gives researchers a much clearer idea of what they ate. With this increased understanding of what mammoths ate, researchers can better pinpoint factors that could have eventually led to their extinction.

 

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A woolly mammoth lower jaw like the one presented during the Nature Live by Adrian Lister, demonstrating their huge teeth used for grinding plant matter.

 

Frozen mammoths have even been discovered with food content still inside their stomachs or intestines, their 'last supper', as it were. Studying these remains of partially digested plant matter taken from inside a preserved woolly mammoth has proven that they certainly did eat grass as a food source.

 

Knowing for sure that mammoths ate grass supports the climate change theory of habitat change, as the grass plains began to contract at the end of the last ice age around 14,000 years ago. This was because the earth's climate was warming, and forest habitat was spreading north so gradually displacing the grasslands that mammoths relied on for their food.

 

Adrian explained how, by using radiocarbon dating, we can age mammoth remains very accurately, and this has now been used to age and plot every mammoth fossil ever found. This in turn means that scientists like him can identify and mark the change in woolly mammoth distribution over time. This crucial extinction timeline can then be matched against the known changes in reduced grass cover and the increased spread of forest growth up into the woolly mammoth's natural range.

 

When scientists compare the changing distribution of woolly mammoths to the changing distribution of their grasslands, they match. This suggests that the spread of the forest upwards into the higher latitudes would have pushed the woolly mammoths north. So it was this change in vegetation from grassland to forest that was a major contributing factor, ultimately leading to the mammoth's extinction.

 

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As the woolly mammoths' range contracted they became extinct. Studying them now could help prevent future mammal extinctions.

 

At this point Adrian then put forward a second theory, saying that "nothing in science is ever that simple." This second theory is that early humans could themselves have been responsible for driving the woolly mammoths to extinction. 

 

Hunted to extinction?

 

Evidence for the 'people theory' is that the period of time that woolly mammoth numbers were declining also coincided with a rapid increase in the numbers of people. There have been skeleton remains of mammoths found which show damage from a flint tool splintered off in the bone. In the studio, images of this were brought up on the screen, clearly showing a human-crafted spearhead lodged within a mammoth bone. This is evidence that early humans did at least occasionally hunt mammoths as large game, either as a source of food, or for materials to build shelter.

 

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Flint spear heads have been found splintered-off within mammoth fossils proving that they were occasionally hunted by early humans.

 

As this Nature Live approached its end, Adrian explained that both of these theories could in fact have worked together at the same time to conspire against the woolly mammoth, thus driving it to extinction. The change in the climate driving forests to spread north would have forced the woolly mammoth into very restricted habitat patches, making them a heavily endangered species; this, combined with hunting by humans could have dealt the final blow to the woolly mammoths, sending them to the icy grave of extinction.

 

The event did end on a more positive note when Adrian explained that the woolly mammoths' death was not in vain. Studying and understanding the reasons why large mammals like mammoths went extinct could help scientists like Adrian prevent the extinction of other large mammals in future. And research on mammoths is now being used to help try and protect African elephants (Loxodonta africana) from following their footsteps.

 

Watch Adrian summarise the theories behind the extinction in the Museum's film from the Mammoths: Ice Age Giants exhibition, which closes on 7 September:

 

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This blog is written by Daisy Cunynghame from our Archives team to mark Explore Your Archive Week 2013 (www.exploreyourarchive.org)

 

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On the opening of the Natural History Museum in 1881 the Central Hall was reserved for species type characters of the principal subject areas of the museum with the purpose of, as Richard Owen put it, ‘forming an Epitome of Natural History’.

 

The concept of a type museum, or Index Museum as it came to be known, had been with Owen, the Natural History Museum Superintendent, for many years.  He had attempted in his previous post as curator of the Royal College of Surgeon’s Hunterian Museum to bring this to fruition – buying many non-surgical specimens for display, including a wide variety of mammals, and trying for a time in the 1840s to canvass the powers that be to remove the zoological specimens from the British Museum to his own Hunterian.  His central display there contained as many fossil mammals as it did surgical specimens, moving the focus of the museum and its exhibits from a practical medical one to a more general study of comparative anatomy.

 

On moving over to what was then the Natural History Departments of the British Museum, Owen focused on this perceived need for this Index Museum from the very outset – his first report to the Trustees in 1859 to propose a Natural History Museum separate from the Bloomsbury museum contained a circular hall in the centre, for the exhibition of type specimens.  ‘Such a building, besides giving accommodation to the several classes of natural history objects…should include a hall for a distinct department, adapted to convey an elementary knowledge of all divisions of natural history, the large proportion of public visitors not being specially conversant with any particular subject’.  His design by 1879 showed the Central Hall much as it is today with its series of bays, but with each bay devoted to a different subject area (mollusca, botany, minerals, fish etc.)

 

This period of development was at the peak of the age of the museums – a period of about 50 years when the majority of national and provincial museums were established.  Owen himself, although a key player in this, was in many ways quite old fashioned in his approach.  His emphasis on this Index Museum, at least in part, stemmed from this. His vision of a museum was a somewhat dated one: he desired that his new Natural History Museum would follow the old model where every specimen was on display and the whole museum was an exhibit, and therefore a key reference area would be needed to orient visitors and summarise the complex and voluminous array of collections on display.  His originals plans showed a huge 10 acre museum (only 5 acres of land were finally purchased).  Other members of staff followed the lead of some of the more modern institutions, and believed that only a select sample of material should be on display, the rest kept in a reference section only available to researchers. With this arrangement, there would be no need of Owen’s desired Index Museum.

 

The Keepers of the various scientific departments wrote reports to the Trustees in 1880 arguing in favour of this segregation of research and display, and against the setting up of a separate Index Museum.  Their other key arguments were that more funds for a central display might mean less money for scientific research and display in the individual departments, and that Owen would take all the prime exhibits from the departments for his own exhibits.  Owen in turn wrote to the Trustees attacking these arguments and the scheme went ahead, largely by force of the old man’s will alone.

When the Natural History Museum, after a gestation period of over 20 years, was finally opened in 1881, Owen was 77 years old.  He had drawn up extensive plans for the museum generally, and in great detail for the Central Hall, having gone as far as coming up with a list of specimens and writing a guidebook for the proposed displays.  However he was no longer in a position to carry through many of his grand plans, and stayed on as Superintendent only until 1883 when the move of the last of the mammal specimens to South Kensington was completed.  He was replaced in his position by William Flower who had, like Owen, previously been the curator of the Hunterian Museum.  As such, Flower had considerable experience of curating and managing zoological exhibits.  He was given the new title of Museum Director.

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The role of Director at this point though was very limited. Each Keeper had full control, not just of the scientists in their respective departments, but also over the structure and contents of all displays.  The only area which the Director had effective sway over was the central Index Museum, and Flower made the most of this opportunity.  The Trustees had wanted to give up on the type museum idea after Owen’s retirement, but Flower ensured that this did not happen.  He was in many ways much more forward-looking in museum layout and exhibition design than his predecessor. 

 

 

 

 

He was really one of the first to address the need for distinctly separate exhibition and study collections, the need to severely limit the amount of material on display for ease of understanding of the general public and the need to, as he put it, use specimens to illustrate labels, rather than labels illustrating (often rows and rows of only marginally different) specimens.  He stated that ‘The Curator’s business will be quite as much to keep useless specimens out of the museum as to acquire those that are useful’.

 

 

So William Flower was left to select and install the specimens following Owen’s grand Index Museum design.  Under his tutelage however, it changed from an index to the main collections in the Museum, into something more like an introduction to the concepts and principles of natural history, covering topics like evolution, albinism, natural disasters, seasonal colour adaptation, flight and domestication of animals.  There was also a series of temporary exhibitions related to specific anniversaries or events, on topics such as animals in the bible and Darwinism.  Flower was able to persuade the Treasury to supply funding for scientifically trained assistants who were not on the scientific staff of the Museum to work on the Central Hall collections – the first time staff were employed at the Museum purely for the managing and arrangement of exhibitions, rather than research work.

 

The Index Museum continued to grow and develop in the decades after William Flower, although it had faded out by the end of the Second World War.  After this point the bays of Central Hall contained a series of temporary exhibits, along with some specimens which were retained by popular request, while the centre held a series of large displays – originally a sperm whale, then a number of different elephant displays, and finally from 1979 onwards the Diplodocus which is still there today. 

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With our satellite dish at the ready, the sun shining and half a dozen Museum scientists raring to go, last weekend's Nature Live events went down a storm!

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Linking back to the studio from the harbour in Lyme Regis, we brought the annual Fossil Festival to South Kensington. For visitors who were unable to visit the south coast in person, we revealed why Lyme Regis is THE place to go fossil hunting and showed our audiences some of the weird and wonderful specimens that can be found there.

 

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Museum curator Zoe Hughes reveals an Ammonite, found in the local area.

 

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Does this count as Big Pond dipping?

 

Sunday's events brought us up to date with the organisms that call our seashore home. I was out first thing trying my luck with my bucket and net. I think I was the oldest 'rock-pooler' on the beach!  Unfortunately, I didn't manage to find very much, except for lots of seaweed ... but this proved to be far more interesting than I had first thought!

 

Museum scientist Lucy Robinson explained that there are many different species of seaweed to be found along our coastline, varying in colour, shape and size. She also explained the various ways seaweeds and their extracts can be used - in toothpaste, ice-cream, fertilizer and cosmetics (to name but a few).

 

And of course, some types of seaweed can be eaten - such as sea lettuce. Lucy and I decided to give it a go ... our conclusion, it's very salty and a bit crunchy (but I think that may have been sand!)  To find out more about seaweed and how to identify them, visit our Big Seaweed Search pages.

 

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Yum!

 

Lyme Regis is a great place to visit at any time of the year. If you're interested in fossil hunting, look out for the many guided walks that are on offer throughout the year, giving you the opportunity to explore the beaches with a local palaeontologist who knows what to look out for and who can tell you more about the fossils that are found there.

 

And if you'd like to experience the Fossil Festival for yourselves, put this date in your diaries: Saturday 3 and Sunday 4 May 2014. If this year is anything to go by, it will be another great weekend!

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Dear Beetlers,


This prolonged absence may have something to do with your good authors finding themselves abandoned somewhere in the Crocker Range in darkest Borneo with the sole purpose of collecting beetles! As you will come to learn over the next few blogs there are many methods, both creative and gruesome, for collecting in the field.


It takes a huge amount of planning and resources to transplant four game entomologists from their cosy little nest at the Natural History Museum to one of the remotest and under-explored parts of the world, namely Sabah (formerly British North Borneo). So, with limited time and a mission to collect as much of the area’s biodiversity as possible over the period of just one month, we really had to think about what methods we would employ to maximise our collecting.

 

So why not use rotting fish? I know, it’s obvious!

 

It all began within the sanitised environs of one of the many air-conditioned shopping malls to be found in Kota Kinabalu, the region’s capital.

 

First choose your ‘bait’.

 

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Here is Max Barclay and retired Head of Collections, Howard Mendel, carefully selecting just the right type of frozen fish to attract our little beauties.

 

Before heading in to the field, we had a days’ shopping to procure everything we needed for three weeks in camp. This included luxury items such as wet wipes and instant coffee, as well as the above bait, and the essential fieldwork tool, the panga, (yes, dark thoughts did set in after about week one…)

 

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Max possesses - or becomes possessed by - the 'blade of Borneo'

 

As the fish was frozen, this allowed us to transport it into the field and it be relatively ‘fresh’ for making into bait. Max ‘like a fish to water’ took to the role of fishmonger. It was almost as if he were born to it, so expertly did he fillet!

 

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Actually filleted fish and not the remains of one's colleagues...

 

We use fish as bait as it rots down quite ‘nicely’ (for want of a better word!), and it really, really stinks - apparently with an attractive smell to many beetles. Given the temperatures on average were around 31°C, and humidity was high, this facilitated the rotting process and it was interesting (really, it was!) to see the changes in beetle fauna over the advances in decay.

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Here is our delightful bait: from fresh to semi-decomposing in about four days!

 

Ours was not a precise science; and it is very difficult to work in a controlled way in the field when there are so many variables to affect the outcome of our trapping methods. So basically we chopped up the fish, put various parts into sections of cut up opaque tights (see how we recycle!) and hung them over a bucket that, in turn, was hung over a tree branch or some such so as to not be taken by carnivores (though one would have to be desperate to take this rotting fish!). The beetles should be attracted to the bait and fly to land, falling in to the bucket from which they cannot escape! We set four traps and checked them every few days as the rotting process was so accelerated.

 

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Here is the somewhat alarming final stage of decay which resembled porridge with blueberries, or some such – breakfast, anybody?! Beetles were retrieved using a pair of forceps and precise dexterity!

 

As you can imagine (but I understand if you dont want to!) this was a very messy and smelly business. Managing to empty the traps without covering oneself with mushy-maggot-infested-rotting-fish-guts was a challenge, and there were a few near misses. Despite my most careful emptying, the smell would linger for a few days afterwards, just in time to empty them once again!


As for the results, well this is quite exciting. We think we collected between 30-50 different species of beetle. The main families were the Hybrosoridae (vertebrate and invertebrate carrion feeders as we would expect!), Scarabaeidae and Staphylinidae, and two specifically exciting species (well to us at least!) were Phaeochroops gigas Arrow, 1907 (Hybrosoridae), and Synapsis cambeforti Krikken, 1987 (Scarabaeidae) described from Brunei and endemic to Borneo; this species is considered really quite rare and only collected from a few localities (though this might be why we consider it rare!). The beetles are now here at the Museum and will be distributed to experts for identification. We expect to have results for some groups within six months!


I shall leave you with some images of us actually enjoying fish, which was not rotting.

 

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Well okay, not actually fish but in close proximity to: Beulah and Alessandro share a well earned deep fried squid, it was a beautiful moment!

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Again, not actually fish, but the world's largest prawn, swiftly consumed by the Fishmonger of Borneo (I'm not mentioning the T-shirt, it speaks for itself...!)

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Having arrived in Lyme Regis yesterday, greeted by sunshine and sweet salty sea air, we have been exploring the seashore and getting our bearings today.

 

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Lyme Regis

 

No visit to Lyme is complete without a trip to the beach to go fossil hunting!  Keeping an eye on the tides, we headed out first thing this morning to try our luck.  Museum scientist Ed Baker is a regualr visitor to the Jurassic Coast and showed us what to look for.  Rounded rocks can sometimes contain beautiful fossils...but need to be cracked open to reveal the animal or plant within.  This requires a special geological hammer (ordinary ones can shatter if used!) and a touch of experience/skill (cracking the rock open at the right angle is important).  Fortunately Ed has both of these things and showed us how it was done....

 

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Rounded rocks are hit along the edge using the blunt end of the hammer


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Several ammonites are revealed within the rock

 

But you can also find fossils without the need for hammers.  By looking carefully and sifting through the rocks on the beach, you never know what you might find.  Ammonite fossils are pretty common and vertebrae and other bones from fossil marine reptiles can be found by the keen eyed.

 

With our pockets bulging with our dicoveries and faces glowing from the sun and sea air, we headed back into town to start setting up the satellite equipment for this weekend's live links.  If you can't make it down to Lyme Regis, why not join our museum scientists in the Attenborough Studio at the Museum as we link to you live from the festival....

 

 

You can also follow us on Twitter @NatureLive

 

For more information about the Fossil Festival, visit www.fossilfestival.com

 

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Honorary member of the team Ed Baker helps Media Techs Tony and Eddie set up our satellite equipment

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Phew, it's been a busy few weeks at the Museum!  With snow outside and schools on holiday, everyone was keen to visit the Museum and to mark the Easter holidays we decided to programme some suitably festive Nature Live events ... my favourite being Eggs-tinct! If you weren't able to see it in person, here are a few highlights:

 

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No egg event at the Museum is complete without reference to dinosaurs and Museum curator Lorna Steel brought along this beauty! A REAL dinosaur egg!

 

Equally, no egg event would be complete without the largest egg in the world ...

 

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No, this isn't some clever perspective, camera trickery - this really is the size of the largest kind of egg in the world (with Lorna's average sized hand above). This one belongs to an extinct Elephant Bird, a species that once lived in Madagascar. These birds were huge - at 3 m tall they were far larger than today's Ostriches - and consequently laid very, very big eggs. EGGs-traordinary!

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Remember, Jurassic Park? Twenty years ago it hit cinema screens across the world and entertained millions with the storyline of bringing dinosaurs back from extinction ... but it’s just a story, right?

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The answer 20 years later is "Maybe". This Friday we’re going to be discussing the possibility of de-extinction: bringing extinct species of plant and animal back from the dead. What was once sci-fi may soon be reality. But are we ready? Have we considered the implications and ethics of this developing science?

 

In 2000, the Pyrenean ibex, a species of wild mountain goat, was officially declared extinct. Once common throughout northern Spain and the French Pyrenees, it had been extensively hunted to extinction. But in 2009, with DNA taken from previously collected skin samples, scientists resurrected the species through cloning. 

 

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However, the cloned animal only survived for 7 minutes and died from breathing difficulties. Was it wrong to try to bring it back? Or could emerging scientific techniques be the answer to the current extinction crisis?

 

If a polar bear cub can generate an increased revenue of five million euros in one year for a German Zoo, imagine how much publicity and money a baby mammoth could generate. While this may seem exploitative, could de-extincting a mammoth result in the conservation of endangered species? Could the mammoth act as a flagship species for the development of new technologies?

 

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We’ll be asking these and other important questions at this After Hours discussion event during Friday’s Lates, and there should be plenty of food for thought. Do join us if you can but if you can't, I’ll post again next week and give you an insider’s view on the points that were raised and the topics discussed.

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Chrysina optima (Bates, 1888) is fast becoming the most famous beetle in the Natural History Museum's Coleoptera collections.

 

Not only is this beetle rarely collected which adds to its mystique, its aura of beauty and other-worldliness, its remarkable metallic colouration that makes one think of shiny chocolate covered sweeties, beautiful gold jewels and rather seasonally, Christmas baubles… oh for a Christmas tree decorated with nothing but beautiful shiny beetles…

 

But, better than any of that, this beetle’s fame will know no bounds, as it has become the star of a brilliant new song made especially for the Natural History Museum!

 

How can a very special beetle, that rests in perpetuity in a darkened drawer, just one of the nine million beetle specimens residing in the Museum, become such an overnight sensation? Well read on...!

 

This beetle was first collected and named in 1888 by Henry Walter Bates, who travelled extensively in the Amazon and came across this Chrysina in Costa Rica. It was published in the Biologia Centrali-Americana, which itself was published from 1879 to 1915 in 215 parts and written by the leading natural historians of the day, including Bates.

 

H-W-Bates-206x300.jpgHenry Walter Bates

 

What did Bates find special about this beetle?

 

Here is an excerpt from the original description of the type specimen:

'The rich red-golden hue of the upper surface and mirror-like polish make it one of the most conspicuous species of a genus remarkable for metallic splendour.'

 

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Chrysina optima Bates

 

Nowadays this lucky beetle is cared for by a super team of curators who instinctively know of its star potential. So, one day when a curious artist came knocking on the heavy wooden doors guarded by entwined snakes, the portal into the Coleoptera section of the Natural History Museum, with a very specific scientific question; it was this beetle that best described the answer we would give him.

 

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And so it came to pass that we met John Hinton, an artist and performer who very much likes to go camping. He told us that he would be camping in the Museum grounds during the school’s half-term week this past October and had this question that he simply couldn’t get off his mind – could we help?! Of course we could!

 

And his question was a big and very important one; it is in fact the first question of taxonomical science…WHAT IS A TYPE?

 

Here is the answer we decided upon, and John has been singing about it ever since…we invite you to join in in the chorus!

 

 

This project is a collaborative one between the Natural History Museum and the artist John Hinton. It was devised as part of the events performed in the October half term 'Campsite' as part of the Darwin Centre Arts Events Programme curated by Sarah Punshon.

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Last week, Nature Live caught up with Museum scientist Dan Carpenter who has just returned from the wilds of Borneo!  I was lucky enough to join him for the last two weeks of his trip in the state of Sabah (in the North East of Borneo) and was blown away by the size and beauty of the rainforests there.

 

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The trees in Borneo are massive and often have buttress roots.

Dan and his team were using similar methods to those they've used previously in the New Forest, and were trying to find out more about the diversity of invertebrate species living in the rainforests of Borneo. 

 

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A large earthworm found in the rainforest

To carry out their work, Dan and the team used a variety of collecting methods, including pitfall traps and something called a SLAM trap - which looks a bit like a tent hanging up in the trees!

 

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A SLAM trap hanging up in the trees

 

In last week's Nature Live event, Dan explained how all these different collecting methods worked and what it was like to spend six weeks living in the rainforest. 

 

To find out more, catch up with Dan's blog or read my blog about the work being carried out by Dan and other Museum scientists in Borneo (including Holger and Pat, who study lichens) and see some great film footage of the wildlife we encountered.

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Recently we were joined by American filmmaker and writer Erin Espelie who was in London to show her film True Life Adventure at BFI London Film Festival. We hosted the second ever screening of the film in Nature Live.

 

True Life Adventure highlights the communities of insects found in and around freshwater streams, from stone fly larvae emerging from the water to spiders hoping to catch a meal in their web. Erin filmed the footage in less than two hours in an area of just 3.25 square feet on a single day in June, reminding us of the diversity of life that can be found on our doorstep.

 

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A still from Erin's film. Woodlice shelter under a rock.

 

Erin was joined by David Urry who works in the Angela Marmont Centre at the museum. He had been for a pond dip that morning and brought along the creatures that he found. Even in October the pond is teeming with life, from tiny water fleas to small snails to long leeches.

 

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Even in October there is lots of life in the Wildlife Garden pond. The small red creatures are water fleas or daphnia.

 

Most of the animals in the pond are in a constant battle to survive. David talked us through some of the adventures that the animals in the pond undergo every day such as the fearsome damselfly nymphs which prey on aquatic organisms using their extendable jaws. Damselflies are similar to dragonflies and live as nymphs in ponds or streams for most of their lives, shedding their skin when it becomes too tight as they grow.

 

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Large red damselfly in the museum's Wildlife Garden. Photographed by Derek Adams.

 

After about a year (but it can be longer) the damselfly nymph climbs out of the water and clings to a leaf or twig. Its body dries and after an hour or so its skin begins to crack and the adult damselfly wriggles out complete with fully-formed wings. The adult damselfly only survives for a few weeks and in this time it attempts to find a mate and avoid being eaten.

 

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Children getting a closer look at pondlife after the event.

 

David brought along some OPAL Water Survey packs so that the audience could explore the life in their local pond or stream. By taking part in the OPAL water survey you can help scientists learn more about the water quality of our lakes and ponds.

 

If you weren’t able to attend the event you can download a pack here.

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Monday 14 May

 

The team flies to Kisangani on a Monusco flight provided free by UNESCO

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We took care to follow the detailed instructions for using the on-board facilities…

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Stocking up two weeks’ worth of provisions in Kisangani – mainly sardines and corned beef –

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..and eventually able to locate a source of reasonable quality ethanol (for insect preservation, of course).

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Heading out of Kisangani by road and river to Yangambi

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The first of many ferry crossings – this one was pretty straightforward for our two 4-wheel drive vehicles

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The next was a little more complicated....

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as the video below shows....

 

 

Always lots of interesting people to meet

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Including well-brought-up children helping with the washing-up

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and down the road towards Yangambi

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After a couple of hours we arrive at the WWF Yangambi Forest Reserve Station which is to be our base for the next couple of weeks.

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We meet our cook Michel, who makes such a major difference to our quality of life during our stay at Yangambi with his excellent cooking, especially the local chicken.

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That night Geoff sets out the light sheet with the mercury vapour lamp, and we collect a bumper harvest of all kinds of night-flying insects.

 

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Tuesday 15 May

 

Among the harvest of the previous night’s collecting at light is a remarkable-looking female fig wasp – Agaon sp. (thanks to Simon van Noort, Iziko Museum, Cape Town South Africa for the Identification). Figs (Ficus spp.) live in an obligatory symbiosis with these wasps without which they can’t be fertilised. The intricate biology and interrelationships between the fig species, their pollinating wasps and many obligatory associated species is fascinating and still needs to be unravelled for many species associations.

 

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Wednesday 16 May

 

Geoff and Lorna sort through the wealth of the material already collected, revealing a spectacular mosquito reared by Lorna from larvae collected in a hollow tree trunk. The filthy black water, which Lorna inadvertently managed to swallow while collecting larvae by siphoning up the water, yielded several specimens of this voracious predatory mosquito – a species of Toxorhynchites – also known as the “elephant mosquito”. In order to rear these specimens to adulthood Lorna had to keep them supplied with food in the form of smaller mosquito larvae.

 

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The colourful irridescent scales of Toxorhynchites bring to mind butterfly wing scales – far removed from our usual perception of mosquitoes and their unpleasant associations.

 

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Thursday 17 May

 

Andy rides pillion to the main area of pristine primary forest in the Yangambi Forest Reserve……

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…to set up the Malaise Trap – an interception trap for (mainly) flying insects, ands a series of Yellow Pan Traps – simple water-filled bowls with a little detergent to break the surface tension – attractive to many insects due to the colour resembling young vegetation. Both trapping systems are extremely efficient, low maintenance collecting methods.

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Sorting through the first results of the Malaise Trap and Yellow Pan Traps placed in the forest

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The Yellow Pans yielded the rare ponerine ant Phrynoponera sveni – described from the Congo in 1916 – nearly 100 years ago. These are the first Congolese specimens for the NHM collection

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and the ubiquitous “African stink ant” Pachycondyla tarsata which lived up to its common name.

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When Andy sorted the first Malaise Trap sample he found something that he wasn’t even certain was a beetle, which was identified later by Max Barclay as an aleocharine staphylinid, probably a myrmecophilous species. Any suggestions as to its identity gratefully received (note the unusual reduced tarsi)

 

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– also for the following prionine cerambycid collected at light, which is absent from the NHM collection and has so far defeated more than one international specialist....

 

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Friday 18 May

 

Friday was market day in Yangambi - we saw a lot of interesting things on sale – Lorna successfully bargained for a bag of chilli peppers – “piment” –

 

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which spiced up our regular lunch menu of imported corned beef and local avocado  – a perfect combination (at least according to Geoff).

 

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Saturday 19 – Friday 25 May

 

Getting towards the end of the trip. The last week has been incredibly productive with night-light trapping, yellow pans and Malaise trapping, and screen-sweeping of (mainly) microhymenoptera. We have collected tens of thousands of specimens, many of which will undoubtedly be new to Science, and the majority will be new records for the D.R. Congo, with so many new acquisitions for the NHM. Thanks to our colleagues at UNESCO, WWF and Tervuren Museum, this has been a very successful expedition.

 

Many thanks to the team  ……

 

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…..and au revoir le Congo

 

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Meet Ollie Crimmen, fish section, Zoology. A scientist with a 37 year history at NHM. Earlier today I hosted his event (14:30 to be precise, come see a Nature Live sometime!) where he spoke with our audience about the likelihood of great whites in the UK. It seems the water temperature would suit and they have certainly been known to travel huge distances before. Food sources aren't a problem here either. So why no confirmed sightings? Maybe it's just a matter of time.....

The specimen here is from the massive collections Ollie cares for and is from a great white found stranded on a beach in Port Fairy, Australia. From at least as far back as 1831. For those of you located on UK shores, pop Ollie on your speed dial. He'll want to be the first to know if you spot Carchorodon carcharias roaming our coastal waters....
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It's been a busy weekend of events....first Tadpoles on Saturday and then Dwarf Elephants on Sunday.  A curious combination of topics, but each equally fascinating!

 

Our Tadpole event was timed to tie-in with the first frog spawn starting to appear in our ponds.....which apparently it is, although warmer weather should help more appear.  Apparently (according to our amphibian curator Barry Clarke) frogs have been known to produce spawn as early as December some years, but hard frosts kill the eggs and it's not until the weather becomes milder that the tadpoles are able to start developing.  In fact, the warmer the weather, the quicker they devlop from tadpoles to adults.

 

Barry was a complete star as always and brought along lots of specimens from our zoology collections.

 

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Note the specimen in the centre of the bottom row.....this is a Midwife Toad.  They show great parental care (unlike our common frogs which lay their eggs and then leave them!)  The female Midwife Toad lays her eggs and the male then wraps them around his back legs.  He then carries them around with him (swimming and moving about seemingly unhindered) until the tadpoles are ready to emerge and swim off.  Because of this parental care, the eggs are far safer and have a greater chance of survival than if they were left unprotected.

 

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However, for the ultimate in parental care, go onto the BBC website and use their 'wildlife finder' to watch some incredible footage of Darwin's frog.  You won't believe your eyes    http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Darwin%27s_Frog#p004j5y9

 

As for the Dwarf Elephants today, well, they were certainly small!  Tori Herridge (a researcher in our Palaeontology Department) brought along some fossils from our collections....including lots of teeth.  The photo below shows the tooth of an extinct Straight-Tusked Elephant at the bottom and an extinct Dwarf Elephant tooth at the top of the photo.  Quite a difference in size!  The Straight-Tusked Elephant was one of the largest elephants ever to live, and could grow to as much as 4 metres tall.  In comparison, Dwarf Elephants were sometimes only 1 metre tall as adults!

 

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We'll be repeating Tori's Nature Live event later this month, at 2.30pm on Wednesday 30th March in the Attenborough Studio.  As always, the event is free and lasts for 30 minutes.  So come and join us if you can and discover more about these mysterious Dwarf Elephants.....

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By Elena Lo Giudice, University of Kiel

 

This is Elena, a PhD student at the University of Kiel, in Germany. I’m an oceanographer so this is my first time on land and I never thought that the life of a geologist could be so exciting.

 

Our adventure started early in the morning trying to communicate with our driver, a very nice, patient and always-smiling guy. After a couple of misunderstandings we arrived at the outcrop and we started the initial investigation of the area. Our curiosity about a missing part of the rock succession drove us at first to the playground of a school, which was built in the middle of the section. Here we were accepted as rockstars - everybody wanted a picture of us - and then we reached the base of the outcrop, a very important point for our work. We were working on the edge of a mining area - there are lots of coal mines here. We will work on mined outcrops higher up in the section later this week but first we need to have health and safety training so we can be safe around the mining roads.

 


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Nathan and me with students at the local school

 

Our work today consisted of logging the outcrop, for instance defining the different rocks and geological structures present in the strata – from the base to the top - and measuring them. We make this information into a diagram (a log) so that other people on our trip can use them when they want to collect from the section. This way they will know where their fossil or rock samples came from and when we work out the ages and palaeoenvironments of the sections, they can relate that information back to the fossil faunas and floras they have identified and have more information on how they lived.

 

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Layers of clay, silt and sandstone at the Stadion Section near Samarinda

 

So, after this amazing day, I came back to the hotel with our driver’s smile impressed in my mind, a lot of pictures with the school guys and, of course, 80m of logged section, what can I ask more for just a single day?